Saturday, November 27, 2021

Identity in the US history survey

Sally Field playing union organizer Crystal Lee Jordan in the film, Norma Rae

In a survey I conducted, more Americans were able to identify five of the three stooges than even two  of the nine Supreme Court justices. My sample size was very small and unscientific. But I have a feeling a real survey would come up with similar results. A C-SPAN poll found that 52 percent of American adults could not name a single Supreme Court justice. They did not ask about the Stooges. 

That is just one of a million embarrassing poll results and man-on-the-street interviews conducted over the years displaying Americans’ astounding ignorance about civics and history.

One of the more recent laments about the state of history education was delivered by the New York Times, as part of its 1619 Project, which leveled a charge of “educational malpractice” against America’s history teachers for the way they teach the history of slavery. Elements of malpractice include outdated textbooks, the whiteness of teachers, and the soft-pedaling of the horrors of slavery in elementary grades. A history professor complained that his 8-year-old daughter was told by a teacher that George Washington had false teeth, but not that he bought some of them from slaves.

One survey showed that a third of students thought the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery rather than the 13th Amendment. I actually found that result heartening, compared with some of the other ignorance we’ve seen. At least they were close. More disturbing is the finding that 92 percent of students didn’t know that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War.

None of this should be surprising. Since 1917 dismal knowledge about all aspects of American history has been revealed in surveys released as a more-or-less annual ritual of national self-flagellation. That year, only 33 percent of high school students were able to identify “the simplest and most obvious facts of American history” and the results have not improved much over the past century. 

It seems that educational malpractice in the teaching of History goes far beyond the slavery curriculum. And every group has their particular complaint. Conservatives think our courses are too negative and don't adequately capture the nation's greatness or foster a proper sense of patriotism and unity. Last year, students at my school criticized my colleagues and me for focusing too narrowly on the “Black-white binary” and ignoring the role of immigrants from Asia and Latin America in U.S. history.

I can't speak for the nation's history teachers, but I can tell you that the Exeter History Department is guilty of lots of unfortunate omissions in our year-long survey of U.S. history. We do a lousy job of covering the recent history that touches most directly on the world students will blunder into after graduation. Most of us run out of time somewhere between Watergate and Reagan. But we’d need to cut something else out if we wanted to add more about the last fifty years. It’s all about trade-offs. When I first started teaching at Exeter, we began the course with the Revolution and spent a whole week on the Constitution. Then we added the colonial period back in. Now we’re lucky if we spend a day on the Constitution. And there's no civics course in our curriculum. (By the way, according to a scary study by a conservative group, only 20 percent of college graduates know that James Madison was the author of the Constitution.)

The students’ complaints about the omission of certain racial groups echoes a mandate of the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative, that the curriculum include windows and mirrors, so all students see themselves in what they are studying. But the pluralistic nature of American society, with its multitude of religious, ethnic and racial groups, along with the rising awareness of identity categories based on gender and sexual orientation makes it impossible to include a mirror for every identity category and still cover things like politics, elections, demographic trends, economics, foreign affairs, wars.

One category that was not mentioned by students critical of our omissions, and doesn’t seem to come up much in our DEI discussions, is class. Perhaps, though, class is a way to offer a mirror to students in many different identity categories all at once.

As the political scientist Adolph Reed puts it, “class is itself an identity category” and it's an identity rooted in the common, unavoidable, daily necessity of the vast majority of American adults, to make a living. Reed says:

The concerns and aspirations that are most widely shared are those that are rooted in the common experience of everyday life shaped and constrained by political economy—for example, finding, keeping or advancing in a job with a living wage, keeping or obtaining access to decent healthcare, securing decent, affordable housing, pursuing education for oneself and intimates, being able to seek or keep the protection of a union, having time for quality of life, being able to care adequately for children and elders.
A history class is not concerned, like Reed,with building a mass movement, but his insight about identity his might help us solve the problem that our nation's diversity presents to the construction of an inclusive one-year U.S. history survey.

Slavery, after all, was one part of a system of labor that included people of all races and genders. When we look at U.S. history through the experiences of the laboring classes, we see the whole rainbow of American identity and common and contrasting, converging and diverging stories. We learn that, before slaves sold George Washington their teeth, poor white people had been selling their teeth to wealthy individuals since the Middle Ages. After emancipation, the nation's first great industrial union, the Knights of Labor, sought to bring Black and white workers together in one big union to abolish "wage slavery." Their failed effort is one episode in a larger story about the American working class that involves every identity category, and a movement frequently thwarted by internal divisions but coming together in solidarity at important moments. It offers vivid examples of how racism harms and antiracism benefits white people.

Contemporary events often lead us to change the way we teach history—as they should.  The Civil Rights Movement inspired historians to bring Black Americans into the national story.  BLM inspired the Times to call for improving the teaching of slavery.  Contemporary workplace struggles should make history teachers rethink how we teach the history of labor, because although the BLM and transgender protests seem to have gotten more attention in recent years, something is also stirring among the nation’s workers—A Great Resignation of unemployed people refusing to take jobs and a significant uptick in strikes this year. And the most successful people's movement of our time in terms of concrete results could be the Fight for 15. Since it began in 2012 40 cities and counties have raised their minimum wages, and in the last three years, 15 states have done so. The Fight for 15 website claims 19 million workers have gotten a raise because of their advocacy.

Most of our students will end up in the workforce, and as they consider how to respond to job actions, it would help if they had a background in the history of labor movements that often discriminated against workers because of race or gender, but then sometimes unified them across identity categories.

Adolph Reed argues that class is the only identity category capable of “building a majority coalition.” It may also be the only category capable of building a U.S. history course that resonates with all of our students.


Notes and Sources:

Nikita Stewart, “‘We are committing educational malpractice’: Why slavery is mistaught — and worse — in American schools.” New York Times Magazine, August 19, 2019.

Adolph Reed, Class Notes, Posing as Politics and other thoughts on the American Scene (2000). Quotes are from the introductory essay.

Fight for 15. A prominent Fight for 15 organizer, Terrence Wise, a Black 40-something Burger King employee and father of three called on workers of different racial categories to unite under their shared class identity. “We've got to build a multiracial movement, a different kind of social justice movement for the 21st century…. We've got to have a new identity for the working class. What do we do every day in this country? We make this country run.” (I can’t seem to find the source of the quote, but here is the Fight for 15 website.) 

Employment in the fast food industry is typical of social problems like poverty and police brutality in that a disproportionate number of Black people work in low-wage fast-food jobs, but white people make up a larger number of that work force.

Statistics are often wielded in ways that obscure these facts by activists with different political agendas (they call each other race reductionists and class reductionists; welcome to the fractured American left). It's a good example of why an education in statistics is essential for advancing anti-racism and social justice. We need to prepare students for navigating these disputes within the left. Not to mention between the left and the right. Adolph Reed writes extensively on what he calls anti-disparitarianism.

On Washington’s teeth: “Records at Mount Vernon show that Washington bought teeth from slaves. The poor in the Western world had been selling teeth as a means of making money since the Middle Ages, and these teeth would be sold as dentures or implants to those of financial means.” 

Feature length movies that portray actual events that illustrate the problem of working class diversity: Free state of Jones; Matewan; Norma Rae; Pride (okay, that takes place in Thatcher’s Britain). A fictional story emerging from contemporary workplace concerns: Sorry to Bother You.

Sam Wineberg argues that the dismal test results don’t really tell us much about what is wrong with history education in America. Teachers should not be obsessed with cramming facts into their students’ heads so they will do well on the next blue-ribbon study of American’s historical ignorance. Instead, they should “help students construct a usable narrative that can inform their understanding of contemporary affairs.” In this he seems to agree with retired teacher Mike Maxwell, author of Future-Focused History. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

WEIRD supremacy culture


In the summer of Our Racial Reckoning, a controversy erupted around a poster on the Smithsonian History museum website with the title “Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States.” The poster presented a list of largely positive cultural values—things like delayed gratification, be polite, action-oriented, rugged individualism, and hard work—but attributed them to "whiteness" and seemed to frame them in a negative light. President Trump and others condemned the poster and it was soon taken down. Just another skirmish in the Great American Culture War.

The poster was derived from a popular handbook for anti-racism training written in 1978 and still used in classrooms and seminars. The book, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, by Judith H. Katz has a 4.1 rating on Amazon and is “an important book that needs to be read by all professionals,” according to a reviewer who signed off as Allen Ivey, a “distinguished” professor of education at UMass, Amherst.

The poster also resembles the work of another influential antiracism trainer, Tema Okun, who jotted down a list of “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” after a frustrating day of work sometime in the late 90s. She turned the list into an article and then the basis of a consulting practice, a website, and a book. Although Okun and Katz are not as prominent as currently fashionable race gurus like fellow white diversity trainer Robin D’Angelo, or African-American writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, their ideas are widely circulated, showing up in a wide variety of settings, from elementary schools to the Sierra Club and a national history museum.

Katz and Okun have a point. A lot of the features they attribute to white culture can be annoying or worse—and they become particularly annoying during a long and frustrating work day. Much of our unhappiness, I think, comes from the effort to live up to these cultural expectations. They seem connected to Americans’ obsession with work and the fact that 55 percent of us don’t even bother to use up all of our paid vacation allotment.

Consider just one item on the poster: “rugged individualism: the individual is the primary unit.” We may be the loneliest people in human history. Since 1960, the percentage of Americans who live alone has risen from 13 to 28. The self-liquidating nuclear family is a clever arrangement that sustains the population but keeps it atomized. You have children and raise them to adulthood, then send them to college five hours away in a different state where they meet a boyfriend and end up spending Thanksgiving with his family, who also live five hours away (this is a totally hypothetical example, with no connection to actual events).

The extended family—once the “primary unit” of humanity—is soon to be joined by the neighborhood in the dustbin of history. Twenty-six percent of millennials say they don’t know the name of even one neighbor.

But what does any of this have to do with skin color? Are Black and brown people all living in extended-family heaven? Have they all mastered work-life balance?

No say Okun and the Smithsonian: “Since white people still hold most of the institutional power in America, we have all internalized some aspect of white culture—including people of color.”

Hard-working, individualistic Black people, it seems, are not authentically Black. That’s "a racialist view that imputes a singular, authentic consciousness and values, aspirations and mores to racially designated populations," according to Adolph Reed. Policing the boundaries of "authentic Blackness" is a common weapon that has been used by mainstream race activists to dismiss the ideas of Black Marxists like Reed as well as Black conservative like Thomas Sowell. It seems particularly objectionable when wielded by white people.

What annoys some whites and a lot of Blacks about the Smithsonian poster and Okun’s formulations is that they seem to accept a fundamental premise of racism—that a person’s skin color comes with certain essential characteristics. Critics of contemporary antiracist thinking often level this charge of racial essentialism, and also race reductionism—the belief that racism is the cause of every social phenomenon—against antiracists activists and diversity trainers.

To be fair, Okun, Katz, and those who agree with them would disavow those charges and say they are talking about cultural, not biological or genetic, essences. But their work makes culture seem less fluid than it is.

And the poster gave conservatives an easy win in the culture war.

I’d like to suggest that Okun and Katz—and the Smithsonian—could have avoided a lot of grief if they had grounded their analysis of culture in history rather than skin color.

I write as a fairly recent convert to “big history”—an approach to the discipline that looks at the whole sweep of the human story rather than just the relatively small part of it reflected in written historical documents. When I first saw the Smithsonian poster I thought about James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain, which hinges on the development of grain-based agriculture and chronicles the long conflict between the people inside and outside of states. Because civilization depended on the labor-intensive cultivation of grains, inhabitants of states were coerced into working much harder and longer than the hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists who continued to reside outside the city walls. He describes those stateless, uncivilized “barbarians” as mostly happier and better off than the poor slobs living under the yoke of the state, in much the same way that Okun and Katz think of non-white people as having certain advantages over lonely, repressed, over-worked whites.

But it’s historical developments like agriculture and the rise of states, according to Scott and other big historians, not white skin that is the source of our misery. Civilized states sprang up all over the world, from Mexico to China, so the civilized-barbarian dichotomy does not represent a racial distinction. The barbarians outside the European states were just as “white” as the folks inside. But not all civilized cultures are alike—and Okun-Katz are onto something when they suggest that Europeans have developed a more intense version of civilized culture. It did not arise as a product of their whiteness, however, and even now not all Europeans share these characteristics equally, though they all live in states.

Long before the advent of “whiteness studies,”* historians have been trying to understand European exceptionalism. Why, they ask, did Europeans come to dominate the world? Like Okun and Katz, 19th century European historians credited essential characteristics of races. Europe took over because Europeans were biologically superior. Thankfully, 20th century historians moved beyond racial determinism to explore other possible causes.

A few years back, for example, Jared Diamond offered a compelling argument based on geographical determinism in his popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Other explanations have included things like the competition among European states, the Black Plague, and the invention or adoption of various technologies ranging from the printing press to the lateen sail and from eye-glasses to gunpowder.

A new book advances another compelling theory that seems particularly compatible with antiracism, even though it contradicts some of the premises of the movement.

In the WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich, argues that the European people he calls WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, and Democratic) and that Katz and Okun call white, got their peculiar characteristics not via biological evolution and not because of any physical feature like skin color, but through the evolution of culture. And because the key to that evolution was fluky, it implies no sense of inherent superiority among individuals in one culture over individuals in another. It wasn’t planned or willful, and it didn’t happen because the Europeans were naturally smarter or more industrious. It wasn’t in the genes.

According to Henrich, it emerged from a quirky set of policies, imposed on Europeans by the Catholic Church starting in the fourth century, which radically changed the nature of families, by, among many other things, prohibiting cousin marriage. Henrich call it the Marriage and Family Program (MFP). All these policies—his appendix lists six pages of them—had the effect of breaking down big extended families—clans—into smaller units until we ended up with that unsatisfying nuclear family mentioned above and the lonely, repressed, rugged individual.

Just as you don’t have to have a white skin to adopt “white culture,” Henrich shows how you don't have to be white or even Catholic to adopt WEIRD culture. In fact, Protestants ended up WEIRDer than Catholics, especially in terms of what the Smithsonian poster refers to as “the Protestant work ethic.” And more recently, Henrich says, Japan, South Korea, and China have adopted many features of WEIRD culture and psychology so successfully that they threaten to surpass Europeans in WEIRDness (Henrich, 476). Cultural evolution—and history—is a seesaw battle with no inevitable outcome.

Like the Smithsonian, which lists white qualities that are both advantageous and a bummer, Henrich points out that the culture that helped Europeans conquer the world, carries some very unsatisfying elements. On the plus side, he cites things like patience, inventiveness, industriousness, and my favorite, positive-sum thinking. On the downside, WEIRD people are more guilt-ridden, materialistic, and prone to suicide than people in kin-based societies (471, 427). And Henrich acknowledges “very real pervasive horrors of western colonialism, slavery, and genocide (487).

And even the people who benefit the most from WEIRD miss out on the warmth of kin-based societies, which Henrich describes as “both impressive and beautiful,” characterized by

relationship specific kindness, warmth, reciprocity, and—sometimes—unconditional generosity as well as authority and deference. It's focused on the in-group members in the networks. If you're in the group or the network it can feel like a long and comfortable hug (Henrich, 300).
Of course Henrich and Okun-Katz are not the first to notice the negative side of Western culture. During the colonial period in America, Europeans frequently ran away to live with the Indians. (Graeber and Wengrow, 18-20). Nineteenth-century utopians created a cottage industry in pointing to the flaws and contradictions embedded in a culture they found unsatisfying. Some of them formed communes, others, like Karl Marx, fomented revolution. Such people, Henrich notes, noticed that a culture supercharged by market capitalism “sometimes led to alienation, exploitation, and commodification." And our yearning for that "long and comfortable hug" has never gone away. This fall, my daughter moved to a commune in Virginia in search of that hug.

While Henrich agrees with some of their critiques of western culture, I have a feeling his theories won’t sit well with many in contemporary social justice movements for a number of reasons.

For one thing, although he acknowledges positive and negative features of WEIRD and kin-based societies, he argues that WEIRD culture has advantages that account for its dominance, and suggests that a process like natural selection will lead people in other cultures to adopt those features. This pushes against the cultural relativism of the left as well as a paradoxical inclination to see non-western cultures as morally superior and more humane.

These tensions may explain why he was denied a job in the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia and ended up with a joint appointment in the perhaps less-woke economics and psychology departments.

But qualities like moral and humane matter little in the contest between cultures, Henrich would say. Rather evolution rewards the ability to “scale up” and gain competitive advantage (87-122).

Henrich identifies a number of competitive advantages of WEIRD culture.

At the heart of his analysis is the unique, western nuclear family, which he sees as the key to the WEIRDness of the West and its success. The Catholics’ MFP included prohibitions on cousin marriage, which led people to seek partners outside the clan and thus shrank and weakened extended families and clans in relation to other institutions, like the church and the state. Perhaps more significantly, the banning of polygamy led to significant changes in male psychology that suppressed competition among males, and reduced crime, violence and zero-sum thinking

while promoting broader trust, long-term investments, and steady economic accumulation….Low status men in monogamous societies have a chance to marry, have children, and invest in the future. High-status men can and will still compete for status, but the currency of that competition can no longer involve the accumulation of wives or concubines. In a monogamous world, zero-sum competition is relatively less important. So, there's greater scope for forming voluntary organizations and teams that then compete at the group level.
In Henrich’s fascinating and surprising chapter on the subject, he calls, monogamous marriage a “peculiar institution” and a “testosterone suppression system,” citing studies that show dramatic declines in testosterone levels among men in monogamous marriages compared with men in polygynous societies, which have been the norm through most of human history, and are still fairly common today, while “nearly all modern legal prohibitions on polygynous marriage derive from WEIRD foundations, ultimately rooted in Christian doctrines” (255-283, 262).

It’s not hard to imagine how this might make life better for women. Yet, the Smithsonian devotes four bullet points to the monogamous nuclear “white” family, noting that the wife is “subordinate to the husband”; and it has become fashionable in the social justice hothouse of universities, which Henrich says is ground zero of WEIRD culture, to rail against the “patriarchal” two-parent “heteronormative” family as an oppressive, outdated relic of the past.

While a student at Yale, Rob Henderson, who grew up in foster homes, noticed that classmates who came from affluent two-parent families, would say “’monogamy is outdated’ but then they personally plan to get married and have the same kind of family that they had.” This experience inspired Henderson to coin the phrase “luxury beliefs,” which he attributed to elites who condemn elements of western culture—like hard work and two-parent families—that are the key to their prosperity.

According to Henderson, the notion that the Protestant work ethic is an element of white supremacy culture is a luxury belief developed by people who have every intention to work as hard as necessary to get ahead.

As people sought mates outside of clans, WEIRD societies became more cosmopolitan and less tribal. Survival came to depend on being able to “engage in a wide range of mutually beneficial transactions” with strangers, so people adopted “market norms” of fairness, honesty, and cooperation, “qualities that will help them attract the most customers as well as the best business partners, employees, students, and clients.” Those values were internalized and led to a culture of “impersonal prosociality.”

People in clannish societies focus more “on nurturing and sustaining enduring webs of interpersonal relationships,” which promotes their warmth—that comfortable hug. Since there is little need for transactions among strangers, there’s no incentive to conform to “market norms” and develop values of impersonal prosociality (293-294). If you live in a kin-based society, you’re more likely to take care of your aging parents and to cheat a stranger in a business transaction, according the Henrich.

Critics of European capitalism have long focused on negative values cultivated by market imperatives and Henrich acknowledges that in addition to making us more trustworthy to strangers, markets tend to erode communal warmth and “make people self-centered, individualistic, calculating, and competitive” (300, 299).

The Smithsonian chart is full of values connected to market norms—with nine bulleted items under “competition” and three under “Protestant work ethic.” But these values are not equally held by all white people, or all people living in Western countries. They were less prominent among the people Rob Henderson grew up with and more prominent among his undergraduate classmates. In my own experience, I can say they are much more widespread in the racially diverse elite boarding school where I teach than they were in the white working-class neighborhood where I grew up. They are not determined by skin color.

The concept of justice is also unique in WEIRD culture, Henrich says, and he presents it mostly as an improvement over kin-based justice, because it is based on individual responsibility, guilt and punishment rather than corporate responsibility, guilt and punishment. It seeks to apply universal principles (however imperfectly) rather than maintain in-group loyalty.

The Smithsonian poster lists as an element of white justice “intent counts,” but doesn’t mention what a better alternative might look like. Henrich contrasts Western law’s “intentionality in moral judgement” with legal systems that don’t consider intent. Consideration of intent, which is connected to the principle of individual rather than “corporate responsibility,” seems like a wholly positive development in the western legal tradition. It’s good that we treat first degree murder differently than a death caused by an accident. In some kin-based societies the individual perpetrator’s intent doesn’t matter at all. Rather than a prison sentence, kin-based societies often impose payment of “blood money” to the victim’s clan “and the size of this payment won’t depend on whether you killed the guy by accident.” Failure to work out an agreement on the payment doesn’t lead to judgement by a higher court, but to an ongoing “blood feud.” The goal is not fairness to the accused, but restitution to the clan (Henrich, 219-222; and Weiner, 117-126).

The Smithsonian poster’s reference to intent is neutral, but it seems to reflect a growing tendency among diversity advocates to de-emphasize or discount intent, and focus mainly on the impact of a harmful act—which is more often a “microaggression” than a murder. For example, see “Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter,” in Everyday Feminism. 

Henrich’s thesis would not be appealing to anyone looking for a neat historical dichotomy between an evil oppressor society and a world of romanticized victims. It lacks the “moral clarity,” for example, of the Times’ 1619 Project, which posits racism as inherent to western civilization, especially the American capitalist system.

Like Scott, Henrich points out that slavery was universal throughout human history among all races. Henrich also acknowledges, like the 1619 Project, that slavery became more brutal under European market capitalism. But he also agrees with critics of 1619 when he argues that Europe’s WEIRD culture with its Enlightenment values, was uniquely responsible for the abolition of slavery.

He attributes it to their belief in “moral universalism” (403). Unlike most other peoples, Henrich writes, WEIRDos tend to think analytically rather than holistically (a contrast not lost on critics of white culture) and so they “hate contradictions.” “Much of the development of Western law has been about ferreting out and resolving contradictions that emerge when one tries to isolate a set of principles and apply them more broadly” (404). Thus, abolitionists and others were motivated to end slavery to resolve a glaring contradiction.

It could have gone another way, Henrich notes. While abolitionists were trying to resolve the contradiction between Enlightenment ideals and slavery via emancipation, slave-owners were resolving the contradiction by convincing themselves that “slaves were a different kind of creation and thus not subject to the self-evident assertion about unalienable rights.” Thus, WEIRD culture didn’t make abolition inevitable and it’s still important to study history so we can understand how the abolitionists triumphed over the pro-slavery theorists (569, n.8). One thing that Henrich makes clear is that there is a spectrum of WEIRDness. Some parts of the West and of the United States are WEIRDer than others. If he is right, it would explain why Southern white people in the antebellum US who still married their first cousins (rates of cousin marriage tend to correlate with degrees of WEIRDness according to Henrich) were less bothered by the contradictions between slavery and the democratic ideas of the revolution while people in the WEIRDer North abolished slavery in their states after the Revolution and then fought a war to abolish it in the nation.

WEIRDness is still uneven. Henrich’s book includes maps that show the relative WEIRDness of the different US states and different European countries. A great irony is that according to Henrich the WEIRDest people on Earth today are the inhabitants of the western universities—especially in the United States—that are the epicenter of antiracist efforts to dismantle “white supremacy culture.”

Which gets to the problem of racism in contemporary WEIRD societies. If WEIRDness abolished slavery, why hasn't it ended racism? Henrich might argue that any remnants of racism in America are a function not of too much white culture, but of too little WEIRD culture.

Racism persists in America, he would say, to the degree that the Catholic MFP has not fully stamped out intensive kinship and in-group prosociality, and racism would be more likely to thrive in places where that was the case.

On the other hand, a WEIRD tendency to believe in “internal attributions” leads to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” (“the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations”—Wikipedia). In the words of the Smithsonian poster, “you get what you deserve.” Thus, if a particular racial group is disproportionately poor, for example, it must be caused by an internal attribute of the people in the group.

On yet another hand, the principle of individual rights also grew out of the belief in internal attributes, according to Henrich. We see the right to a fair trial as an inherent right of every individual, not something to get or be denied because of membership in a group. You get the job because you are qualified, not because your uncle is doing the hiring. Once you concede the humanity of different-looking people, you have to acknowledge their inherent rights.

Thus, WEIRD culture is a mixed bag when it comes to inspiring antiracist attitudes.

Henrich’s theories may or may not be true but I found them persuasive, and also compatible with antiracism. For one thing, they offer a satisfying synthesis of the two sides in the debate over the 1619 Project. He offers something to those who point out the western character of anti-slavery abolitionism but he also explains how racism could persist in that same culture. And Henrich’s “WEIRD culture” offers much more ground for hope than the 1619 Project or the Afro-pessimist formulation of “white supremacy culture.” Hopelessness is the greatest foe of any kind of activism.

(Read about the 1619 conflict here.)

Second, Henrich dismisses biological or genetic explanations of human evolution as significant causes of differences among various groups of humans, focusing instead on how cultures evolved. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution assumes human equality. We are all, he argues, born with equally impressive brains that are designed to adapt to whatever environment we are born into. Plop any kind of kid with whatever skin color into any village and his psychology will develop in a way that is suited to thrive in that culture, just as well as anyone else. All human brains did evolve, he says, to be self-programmable, ready at birth to adapt to the social environment we face. (487) Not only is that argument persuasive, because it’s supported by so much documentary evidence; and not only does it undermine racist beliefs; but it also offers a great deal more hope for the survival and improvement of multi-racial democracy in the West.

But Henrich’s book should not be taken as the last word. In their just-released book on the history of Humanity, David Wengrow and the late David Graeber, say that new research that has been accumulating in recent decades “points towards a completely new account of how human societies developed over roughly the last 30,000 years. Almost all this research goes against the familiar narrative” and we are only in the very earliest states of incorporating this knowledge into an understanding of the broad sweep of human history.

I’ve only gotten through the first couple of chapters of their book, The Dawn of Everything, but I’m excited to find out how their version complicates the stories that Scott and Henrich have told.

NOTES AND SOURCES

Some of the books that have helped me think more globally

Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Phychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York, 2020). Henrich considers and persuasively dismisses the evidence that psychological differences among human groups are caused by genetic evolution. The inclination of WEIRD researchers believe in “internal attributions” leads them “to assume that any observed or inferred psychological differences among populations are due to genetic differences.” “It’s important to confront this possibility head-on,” he writes. He concludes that genetic evolution is too slow to account for all the differences we see across the globe. “The many lines of research explored in this book suggest that cultural processes have dominated the formation of the psychological diversity that is apparent around the globe as well as within Europe, China, and India.” See 481. On the fundamental attribution error, 386.

James C. Scott, Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017) 

Anyone who is inclined to romanticize kin-based societies should read Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom (2013). Weiner's eye-opening book offers a close up look at what justice looks like in kin-based societies. Like Henrich, he also acknowledges the appeal of kin-based societies and warns that modern individualistic societies are always in danger of reverting to tribalism. Liberal modernity, he argues, does not replace and eliminate the rule of the clan, it merely suppresses it and the "ache for everything that is lost" in the transition, is never fully overcome.  "Addressing that ache is an essential challenge for liberal society," he argues.  Intellectuals and artists, he says, seek to meet that challenge, "sometimes to liberalism's detriment, but sometimes by reimagining the clan in ways that advance and sustain the culture of the liberal rule of law" (168).

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, (2016) gives a vivid sense of the big hug that is missing in the modern west and how it is sometimes recreated in modern western societies.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies  (1997).

Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (2007).

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) 

On the impact of eye-glasses on human progress and as a minor factor in European dominance, see David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1995).

Reviews of WEIRD

This essay discusses the reception of Henrich’s 2010 paper—a prelude to the book—by other social scientists.

An essay here by Rob Henderson in a conservative publication offers a thorough, uncritical summary of the book. 

A New York Times review by Daniel Dennett, offers a good summary and speculates about its reception among other scholars, calling for respectful engagement and concluding: “This book calls out for respectful but ruthless vetting on all counts, and what it doesn’t need, and shouldn’t provoke, is ideological condemnations or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities. Are historians, economists and anthropologists up to the task? It will be fascinating to see.”

A review in EH Net—an economics history site—evaluating the book as a work of history. 

A Note on The Dawn of Everything

David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). The authors devote a whole section of the book to Scott’s argument in Against the Grain, but Henrich ignores his work. Henrich and Graeber/Wengrow seem to be talking past each other. Their names don’t appear in each others’ indices nor is their scholarship listed in each other’s long bibliographies. Dawn is blurbed on the dust jacket by four luminaries on the academic left: Scott (“dazzling, original, and convincing”), Robin D.G. Kelley, Rebecca Solnit, and Noam Chomsky. The most recognizable name among Henrich’s blurbers, Francis Fukuyama, whose book on early humanity is held up by Graeber/Wengrow as a typical example of the wrong way to tell the story (9).

As we might expect from a further-left perspective, Graeber and Wengrow seem to have a more favorable view of non-western societies than Henrich or Weiner but they also seem to be moving away from Scott’s view of grain-based agriculture as a sharp dividing line between state and non-state societies. A key argument of Henrich is that socieites develop through a process of “cumulative cultural evolution” which individuals in the society are unaware of. The products of that process are “much smarter than we are. . . . Cultural evolution assemble highly adaptive and complex recipes, procedures, and tools over generations without anyone understanding how or why various elements are included.” Individuals to whom these products are handed down generally don’t understand how they work, so best not try to mess with them (66-67).

Graeber and Wengrow, argue that people are natural political philosophers, who over the millennia, have come up with all kinds of different ways to organize societies. The greatest mistakes that chroniclers of early humanity have made is to assume all the people living outside of states, civilizations, and without settled agriculture were simple primitives who lived natural lives. The chapter I just read resurrects a lost history of dialogue between early European explorers and colonizers and “indigenous intellectuals” of North America in which the Americans proved to be the superior debaters and who offered unanswerable and devastating critiques of European culture. The Wendat “philosopher statesman” Kandiaronk, for example, said “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman,” and then spelled out how obsession with money led to a culture of “lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity” (54-55).

The two books also differ in their views of the relative freedom of people in different cultures. Henrich sees democracy as a unique feature of WEIRD culture—it’s the D in WEIRD—along with individual rights and freedoms. He says they weren’t consciously developed by the political philosophers of the Enlightnment—“fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians positing grand theories of ‘democracy,’ the ‘rule of law,’ or ‘human rights.’” Instead, they were an inadvertent product of the psychological changes caused by living in a WEIRD culture.

Graeber and Wengrow also demote fancy Enlightenment philosophers—they got their ideas about freedom from indigenous intellectuals of America. But the version of liberal democracy they came up with was vastly inferior to what the indigenous American practiced. All Europeans—rich and poor—were slaves to their material self-interests, engaged in endless competition over status and private property, subject to coercive hierarchies and punitive laws. Because indigenous peoples practiced a “baseline communism” in which, for example, “it would have been quite inconceivable to refuse a request for food,” they enjoyed a truer freedom. Their different experiences of freedom involved
very different concepts of individualism. Europeans were constantly squabbling for advantage; societies of the Northeast Woodlands, by contrast, guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life—or at least ensured no man or woman was subordinated to any other. Insofar as we can speak of communism, it existed not in opposition to but in support of individual freedom.

Tema Okun and the Smithsonian would seem to be invoking this contrast in their critique of white culture. It seems doubtful, though, that she or anyone she has encountered in 21st century America has any direct experience of a culture like those of 16th and 17th century Northeast Woodlands peoples. 

One important thing that both books have in common is that they stand firmly against any kind of deterministic view of history or a notion that any outcome was or is inevitable. It think it’s also safe to say that they both see human societies perpetually in flux and that humans do have a big impact on their own history. Graeber and Wengrow, though, seem more optimistic about the ability of humans to consciously change their social arrangements for the better. The worst thing about modern WEIRD societies, they seem to be saying, is that they have forgotten that rich history and thus have an impoverished sense of how we could make things better. When I tell people that my daughter has joined a commune, they look at me with sympathy, as if the first thought that flashed through their minds was “Jonestown.” But if you read The Dawn of Everything, I think you will come away with the sense that what is weird about our modern world is not the rare commune that pops up, but the fact that there are so few of them. Having studied the rich history of those rare communal societies in America, I was not opposed to Emma joining this one, which I had read about—it’s been around for 50 years—but reading this book made me feel even better about it.

White Supremacy Culture

A Washington Post story about the Smithsonian controversy.

According to the museum’s interim director, the poster was derived from the book, White Awareness: Handbook For Anti-Racism Training, by Judith H. Katz (1978). The UMass professor’s review can be found on Amazon.

A black author reacted to the Smithsonian poster on CNN’s website: “There is no 'White culture,'” by Richard Thompson Ford, August 18, 2020

Tema Okun’s website, where she discusses how she wrote her original list, in 1997, at the end of a long day in the consulting salt mine in a “flurry of exasperation”: The list included “15 behaviors, all of them interconnected and mutually reinforcing–perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness and/or denial, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, the belief in one “right” way, paternalism, either/or binary thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress defined as more, the right to profit, objectivity, and the right to comfort.” Also on the site, Okun acknowledges that her list often seems to do more harm than good, even in the workshops she runs. She never foresaw that 

people would take the analysis and framework we offered and use it to beat each other up—"My analysis is better than your analysis," "I am/we are more righteous than you." Similarly, some people report that this list gets used as a weapon to accuse, shame, and blame in ways that perpetuate disconnection. …
Another, a skilled facilitator, reports that "I could not possibly tally the number of hours I have spent over the last three years dislodging people from the reductive stance they construct based on the tool. In its current form, just to name one area, it tilts people towards a behavioral and ahistorical frame. And because it couches things in a way that can be read as absolutist, it can generate almost ridiculous orthodoxies of exclusion. I worked in one situation where the communications function had come to a grinding halt because a segment of the staff had decided that editing was white supremacist and, while yes, there are elitist and racist frames around proper language, the organization was locked in an either/or frame that was incredibly unhealthy and unproductive."
An activist talks about how the list has been used to scold white people, to tell white people we are inherently problematic and that our work, those of us who are white, is to never trust ourselves. A BIPOC person shares that the list is traumatizing and triggering.

Working with each other across lines of difference is really hard. We cause harm, we operate out of our conditioning, we are rightfully enraged, deeply hurt, exhausted.

See also, the website for a consultancy she is associated with.

Matt Yglesias’s critical essay on Tema Okun’s ideas.

*Whiteness Studies 

Whiteness studies became a booming subfield in American history and other disciplines in the 1990s. The ideas of Okun and the Smithsonian poster seem to have been influenced by that scholarship. The best known historical work in the field is David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991). Whiteness scholars “proclaim their political commitments loudly and without hesitation” and adopt a tone of soul searching and “rhetorical rectitude,” according to a review article on the genre. They treat whiteness as a pathology—an “empty culture,” a “poisonous system of privilege.” One whiteness scholar wrote: “Exposing, analyzing, and eradicating this pathology is an obligation that we all share.” A pioneers of the field, Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White , established a journal called Race Traitor , which sought to be “an intellectual center for those seeking to abolish the white race.” It’s motto: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity” (Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination, International Labor and Working-Class History Fall, 2001, p. 8).

See also, Peter Kolchin, “White Studies: The New History of Race in America,” The Journal of American History, June, 2002, pp. 154-173. Whiteness scholars’ abandonment of the stance of academic objectivity anticipated Times reporter Wesley Lowrey’s more recent call for journalists to elevate moral clarity over objectivity. See Wesley Lowery, “A Reckoning over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” New York Times, June 23, 2020. This move away from objectivity and toward advocacy journalism and scholarship is a function of the growing influence of post-modernist theories and Critical Race Theory, which sees methods of objective inquiry traditionally practiced by journalists and scholars as only serving the interests of the oppressive status quo. The logic of the argument is perhaps best captured in the title of a book by Audre Lorde: “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.”

Henrich’s failure to articulate a position of moral clarity, and his relentless use of statistical evidence and “objective” surveys may be another reason why his book is likely to be ignored or dismissed by antiracist theorists and advocates.

As I poked around the internet, I found this scholarly article, published in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in April 2021: “On Having Whiteness,” by Donald Moss. Like others, Moss doesn’t come out and say that whiteness is genetically or biologically determined, but it is, he writes, “foundational,” and, like original sin, has “no permanent cure.” That sounds pretty essentialist to me. Here is the abstract, in full:

Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which "white" people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one's body, in one's mind, and in one's world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts' appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target nonwhite peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate. Effective treatment consists of a combination of psychic and social-historical interventions. Such interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Whiteness's infiltrated appetites—to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation. When remembered and represented, the ravages wreaked by the chronic condition can function either as warning ("never again") or as temptation ("great again"). Memorialization alone, therefore, is no guarantee against regression. There is not yet a permanent cure.
Back to text.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Labor & race, then and now

A meeting of the Knights of Labor, 1886
Knights of Labor, 1886

Combatants on both sides of the battle royal among historians over the 1619 Project used one book in particular as a weapon against the other side. (Yes, books are the weapon of choice when historians fight.)

Barbara Fields dismissed the Project in large part because the authors failed to consult it. 

Leslie Harris compared the books of 1619 critics Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz unfavorably to this one, as she was discounting their critiques.

The book has also been popular in the Phillips Exeter Academy history department where its arguments are often used (in shortened versions) to explain the origins of slavery and racism in the American colonies.

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, by Edmund Morgan, appeared in 1975, and unlike the work of Wood and Wilentz, according to Harris, managed to weave Native Americans and African Americans along with white people into the story of America’s formulation of its democratic principles. And on top of that, it puts the origins of slavery-racism into the context of a struggle between workers and bosses in a way that sheds light on the way that labor has been managed in America ever since.

At the risk of oversimplification: Morgan argues that slavery emerged from the need of Virginia tobacco planters for a reliable source of cheap labor at a time when their mostly white workers were becoming scarce and increasingly unruly—most notably during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. As the supply of white labor drawn from England's poor had begun to dry up at mid-century, planters started to import Africans, an increasingly more cost-effective source of labor. By the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, the Virginia legislature had already begun to plant an ideology of anti-Black racism in a series labor laws. By elevating the status of poor whites and degrading their Black fellow-workers, these laws embedded racism deep into the American psyche by making it seem like a necessary condition for white status and thus tamed the unruly working class and kept it divided, weak and unable to challenge planter hegemony.

Teachers who want their students to understand the origins of racism in slavery (as opposed to the origins of slavery in racism*) would do well to give their students a list of the slave laws adopted by the Virginia legislature from 1660 to 1705. It is a vivid illustration of how racism was engineered by laws that connected white status to Black degradation while enforcing the physical separation of the races.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there.  The next 400 years has seen a seesaw battle between those who want to end that labor system and others who want to maintain it or adapt it to changing circumstances:  The Union v. the Confederacy; the 14th Amendment v. Jim Crow; the Wagner Act v. Taft-Hartley.  

That struggle continues and if there’s any point in studying history, it’s to help us understand the world we live in now—and how to make it better. So if racism originated in a conflict between employers and labor, it would make sense to look at racism in the context of labor relations today.  

As it happens, American workers are getting both scarce and unruly again, as I write. Since April, we’ve been living through a “Great Resignation,” according to the pundits, because workers are refusing to take or return post-pandemic to low-paying jobs. Then this fall, we entered “Strike-tober,” in which workers who do have jobs stopped working to demand better pay and working conditions.

Labor advocates are hopeful that the decades-long decline in pay and the status of American workers can be reversed by workers with more leverage. But history suggests it’s not likely. Since Virginia when worker scarcity led to slavery, American workers have only really gotten the upper hand in management-labor conflict once, during and for a brief time after the Great Depression and World War II.

Beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, management struck back, regaining the edge sometime in the 1970s.  As labor becomes more assertive now, how will management maintain their advantage?

Here’s one method. During a unionization drive at a bottling plant in New Jersey in 2020, the company hired a “union avoidance” consultant who specializes in “bilingual consulting”—a tactic devised to bust unions in workplaces with a lot of immigrant workers. With wry irony, union organizers refer to the tactic as “intersectional union-busting” and “culturally-competent union busting,” applying terms used by diversity consultants who run antiracism workshops at schools and workplaces.

Since the 17th century tobacco farmers came up with it, the most effect management tactic to defeat labor has involved some variation of “divide-and-conquer.” But things are more complicated now.

Anti-union consulting is a multi-million-dollar industry. It’s estimated that American employers spend $340 million a year on such services. US law allows companies to force workers who are considering a union vote to sit for hours in captive-audience meetings and listen to the company’s anti-union pitch. One employee who encountered the intersectional union-busting strategy said the consultant “divided us according to two language groups, and with each group they tried a different tack.”

An investigative report by In These Times unearthed eight hours of recordings of mandatory company meetings in the six weeks leading up to a union-certification election. According to the reporter who listened to the tapes they reveal “an especially insidious union-busting strategy: exploiting ethnic and linguistic differences to sow doubt and confusion among immigrant workers.”

That’s reminiscent of the “affinity groups” my own employer puts us into for antiracism work.  It’s a common practice in diversity training. Imagine! Using the tools of antiracism to divide workers against each other.

Given the seemingly limitless resources of companies to fight unions—and unions’ declining strength—it's hard to imagine that many efforts to unite workers and win union certification votes can succeed in the face of such tactics.

That’s too bad, because unions may be one of the more effective antiracism weapons. Not only did the rise of union membership lead to the most significant increase in Black income in the middle of the 20th century, but the process of unionization has the effect of bridging the racial divide at work and perhaps of reducing racism—it subverts the divide-and-conquer strategy.

In the United Autoworkers Union’s failed effort to organize workers in a Nissan plant in Mississippi, Sanchioni Butler, a Black woman who was the UAW’s lead organizer, came to believe that

unions are one of the most effective ways to unite Black and white workers in Mississippi—not in a magical sense of making centuries of racism disappear, but in a practical sense of being virtually the only institution in the South capable of making white and Black people work for a shared purpose despite anti-Black racism. Butler says she saw suspicion and resentment between Nissan workers of different races melt away as she talked with them about their shared suffering due to high healthcare costs and job injuries. “At the end of the day, everybody was being mistreated,” Butler says. “They have their own ‘aha’ moment: ‘I didn’t know you went through that. I went through the exact same thing’” (from In These Times).
Butler’s observations bolster the arguments of researchers who have found that the most effective way to reduce white racism is not to divide people into “affinity groups” based on skin color, but to foster “inter-group contact,” putting them together in non-hierarchical groups working toward a shared goal.

One debate that historians continue to have about the process of dividing and conquering workers in colonial Virginia is over the degree to which planters developed the new racialized labor system on purpose. Morgan suggests they stumbled on it, but others assert that they were very much aware of what they were doing: “One does not simply wake up one morning in a slave society. Building such an interlocking economic, legal, and cultural institution takes a determined, conscious effort.”

Whatever the case for 17th-century tobacco planters it seems clear that today, employers are knowingly pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy when they divide their workers into groups based on race or gender or other identity categories and get them to focus on microaggresions between workers rather than wages and working conditions that affect every worker. And while slavery or indenture is no longer an option, employers do seem to have molded the laws to enable other divide-and-conquer strategies. The most effect of these was “right-to-work,” which allows workers to opt out of paying dues to unions that are required to represent them, turning dues-paying union members against free-riding co-workers. But the most successful divide-and-conquer strategy of all has been to pit domestic workers against poor people in undeveloped countries via the threat of offshoring—a threat that Nissan wielded before the certification vote.

As we think about the best way to teach antiracism in US history classes, it makes sense explain the connection between racism and work in the origins of slavery and the ongoing struggle between the perpetuation of racism and the forces seeking to dismantle it. The struggle pops up along the way in numerous places—in the attempts of the Knights of Labor, for example, to organize Black and white labor, and in the Civil Rights movements of the 20th century.

The decline of labor began in large part with the failure of Operation Dixie, the CIO’s attempt to organize workers in the states of the former Confederacy.  “Operation Dixie failed largely due to Jim Crow laws and the deep-seated racial strife in the South which made it difficult for black workers and poor whites to engage cooperatively for successful union organization.” 

The chief organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, were two labor leaders, A. Philip Randolph and his close ally Bayard Rustin. Walter Reuther’s Union of American Autoworkers provided essential funding for the event, hired chartered buses to ferry protesters to Washington, printed the placards carried by marchers, and set up the sound system that broadcast Martin Luther King’s famous speech across the mall. Reuther was the only white man to speak at the event.  The UAW lobbied Congress to support civil rights legislation and King, meanwhile, spoke often at labor meetings (I assign his 1965 address to the AFL-CIO in my spring US history course).

But the unions’ key role in past anti-racism movements and thus its potential for supporting such efforts today remain largely invisible to most Americans. As Michael Kazin put it:

Today, even in their weakened condition, unions remain the only institutions in America in which working people of every race routinely act together to improve their lives. But they have no Reuther or King to sing their praises and hardly any labor reporters in the mainstream media to describe and analyze what they do or who have a sense of their historical significance.
What’s true of the mainstream media is true, I assume, of most of the US history taught in the schools. And if Kazin is right, then incorporating more labor history will not only make the course more accurate, it will also serve the cause of antiracism that schools like mine are so eager to advance.


Notes  

*This passages is a reference to the difference between Morgan, who sees racism as something that developed out of the system of slavery in Virginia, and Winthrop Jordan, who’s also very influential book tends to reverse the chicken-egg sequence: the racism of the English made enslavement of Africans all but inevitable. Morgan’s thesis seems to have more appeal for more historians, who like to push against students’ natural inevitability bias. But a good way to teach the origins of slavery and racism in Virginia would be to teach both interpretations. It would help students makes sense of contemporary conflicts over race. Manning Marable split the difference between Morgan and Jordan when he wrote: “Physical appearance and phenotype were convenient, if not always predictable, measures for isolating the members of the oppressed racial group, the ‘blacks.’” See Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990, 189-90.

On Nissan, see Hamilton Nolan, “The South is Ripe for Organizing,” In These Times, November 2021, 15-22. And Heather McGhee, The Sum of US: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (New York: One World, 2021), Chapter 5.

On “intersectional union-busting in Wharton, NJ, see Alice Herman, “‘Culturally Competent Union-Busting,” In These Times, November 2021, 28-33.

A brief discussion of Morgan among contemporary historians of early America gives a sense of the book’s importance.

A good summary of Morgan’s argument about the development of slavery and racism in Virginia can be found in American Colonies, by Alan Taylor, a defender of the 1619 Project. Many Exeter history teachers have used an excerpt from Taylor’s book in their unit on the origins of slavery in the colonies. The James Davidson textbook, Experience History, that most PEA teachers used until recently provides an even more concise summary of Morgan’s thesis.

Michael Kazin’s comment appeared in the New Republic on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. 

A note on the state of unions and their future prospects. In the struggles against colonial tobacco planters, black and white workers in Virginia did not have unions, or any sort of legal protection for collective action, so in desperation they took up arms against the government in Bacon’s Rebellion. Today, the power balance is similarly tipped in favor of the employers. In spite of rising level of support for unions among the working class, union membership continues to decline.  Since the 1950s it’s down from 35% of workers to a little over 10% now. Even that statistic doesn’t show the full magnitude of the decline, because in the 50s, the vast majority of unionized workers worked in private industry and today that’s down to 6.3%. Some Democratic Party members support new laws to make it easier for workers to form unions. Joe Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” His platform included a proposal to strengthen unions, and he has thrown his support behind the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which was approved by the House in 2020.  His pro-labor appointees to the National Labor Relations Board also may help tip the balance of workplace power toward workers and enact some parts of the PRO act via the “back door.”  During the voting in the (unsuccessful) Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse union certification election earlier this year, Biden issued a statement that some labor scholars said was “the most pro-union statement from a president in United States history.”  And yet, warehouse workers, who had been forced to attend weekly “captive audience meetings” to hear the company’s anti-union message, voted overwhelmingly to reject the union.

Monday, November 1, 2021

1619: Notes and Sources

"My mother raised my siblings and me to be Hegelians ... and that means the purpose of critique is dialectial, to reach a higher synthesis, which in turn reveals new contradictions demanding new critique." (Robin D. G. Kelley in an essay on the conflict between Cornel West and Ta-Nahisi Coates)

The following is a list of sources I consulted in writing two blog posts on the New York Times’1619 Project during my fall, 2021 sabbatical. I’ve also included some notes on and extended excerpts from some of the sources. It’s not an exhaustive list of all that had been written about the Project. Whatever value the Times’ Project itself may have, the discussion of it provides a fascinating window into the creation of history, the fault lines within the profession, and the political and ethical implications of the work that historians do, not to mention the nature of American slavery and the Black experience in American history. If the Times’ goal was to advance the dialectic and reveal new contradictions in our collective understanding of slavery and the place of Blacks in American history—as opposed to promoting one particular way of thinking about it—then it was certainly a great success. The articles in the Project itself are good, but by no means do they provide the last word on their subjects (no work of history ever does). It’s really in the debate over the project and various related readings that I’ve learned the most.

THE PROJECT

The online version of The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project Curriculum website by The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in collaboration with the Times.

An introduction to a forum with four historians hosted by the Times claims that Jones’ goal for the 1619 Project was to begin a conversation about slavery and “stimulate more dialogue.”

“This project is an origin story. It is not pretending to be the origin story,” she wrote. “We are talking about a particular moment in time and making an argument and really asking a question: What would it mean to imagine 1619 as an origin story and how would that help us understand the country that we are?” Alan Taylor said the Project presented “an unsettling narrative, but one that forces us to think … about the fundamentals of American history. And I think that’s been immensely useful.” According to this source, comments from this panel “had something to do with” the Times’ decision to issue the clarification of its statement that “one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery.” That wording was changed to this: it was “a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED IN 1619?

Jones discusses the arrival of Africans in Virginia briefly in her opening essay.

Also in the Times Magazine, Mary Elliott’s and Jazmine Hughes’s “Brief History of Slavery,” asserts that 1619 “set the course” for American Slavery in its account of the sale of 20 Africans as servants in late August.

Nell Irvin Painter, celebrated African-American historian, and author of the History of White People, a global history of racism, said the 1619 Project was “not history as I would write it,” but declined to sign the letter criticizing it. Her book and an article she published in the Guardian four days before the Times Magazine came out, argues that it’s inaccurate to say the Africans who arrived in 1619 were enslaved. “People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured,” she writes. “The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as ‘servants’ for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude.”  Then again, as she writes in her book, unfree white laborers brought to the colonies were essentially enslaved. Few outlived their terms of indenture. See History of White People, 40-41.

Painter’s book also offers a persuasive counterweight to the exceptionalist view of American enslavement of Africans adopted by the Times:
 

In short, the 1619 Africans were not “enslaved”. They were townspeople in the Ndongo district of Angola who had been captured by Imbangala warlords and delivered to the port of Luanda for shipment to the Americas. Raiding, capturing and selling people was not an exclusively African practice. The History of White People begins as a history of the enslavement of white people. She writes: “It will not be lost on the reader that over more than a millennium the vast story of Western slavery was primarily a white story.”


Raiding for captives to sell belongs to a long human history that knows no boundaries of time, place or race. This business model unites the ninth-12th-century Vikings who made Dublin western Europe’s largest slave market (think of St Patrick, who had been enslaved by Irish raiders in the fifth century) and 10th-16th-century Cossacks who delivered eastern European peasants to the Black Sea market at Tana for shipment to the wealthy eastern Mediterranean. The earliest foreign policy of the new United States of America targeted the raiders of the Barbary Coast who engaged in a lively slave trade in Europeans (think Robinson Crusoe). Sadly, the phenomenon of warlords who prey on peasants knows no boundaries of time or place.
I also made use of a fellow high school teacher’s website. John McNeer teaches at a private school in Richmond Virginia, and his page on 1619 offered a detailed discussion the events of 1619 while placing them into the broader historical context. Citing scholarship by the white historian James Horn, he seems to accept the view that the White Lion Africans were enslaved, though he acknowledges that historians don’t all agree.

See also, this National Parks timeline of the evolution of slavery in Virginia from the arrival of Africans in 1619 to the first slave code, 1705.

CONTINGENCY v. INEVITABILITY

Two assessments of the educational value of 1619 which influenced my thinking on the subject include this piece by Andrew Riely, another fellow private high school teacher in Massachusetts:

Racism in the United States, Riely argues, echoing Edmund Morgan,

was not something preordained….Students should not learn about racial democracy only in the context of the drafting of the Constitution, or of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, by which time it was fully formed. To learn why white male identity became the defining qualifier (along with property ownership) for participation in politics across much of early American society, it is as vital to study the roots of this phenomenon as its later manifestations. Otherwise, students will learn that American racism is fixed—its origins obscure and its status unchanging. This can only contribute to racial pessimism and the conclusion that the pursuit of equality under our current political framework is a fool’s errand.

Also in line with Morgan, Matthew Karp, an associate professor of history at Princeton University and an expert on the Civil War and slavery, in Harpers critiques the seed analogy: 

Above all, the historical imagination of the 1619 Project centers on a single moment: the purported date that marks the arrival of African slaves in British North America. “This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin,” writes Jake Silverstein, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, “but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.” Out of this moment, he continues, “grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional”—the kernel of four hundred years of economic, political, and cultural life. History, in this conception, is not a jagged chronicle of events, struggles, and transformations; it is the blossoming of planted seeds, the flourishing of a foundational premise….

However sordid or sublime, our origins are not our destinies; our daily journey into the future is not fixed by moral arcs or genetic instructions. We must come to see history, as Brown put it, not as “what we dwell in, are propelled by, or are determined by,” but rather as “what we fight over, fight for, and aspire to honor in our practices of justice.” History is not the end; it is only one more battleground where we must meet the vast demands of the ever-living now.

THE CONTROVERSY

The Washington Post summary of the conflict over the project included the “turf-guarding academics” line.

Adam Swerer’s account in the Atlantic adds more details and makes the case that the conflict is centered around two opposing metanarratives of US history: “a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize.” 

The historians’ letter critical of “1619” and the Times response.

The World Socialist Website’s original critique.

The American Historical Review defends 1619 against historians writing on the WSWS and elsewhere. 

The WSWS responds to the AHA.  Authors David North and Tom MacKaman accused the AHR editor Lichtenstein of engaging in racial essentialism, assuming “that one’s understanding of history is determined by one’s race” and embracing “racialist theories of history.” This is the same that article quotes at length from an email sent by Barbara Fields. Here it is in full:

I could hardly miss the hype of The 1619 Project, particularly since I am a print subscriber to the NYT. Although I have saved the issue (knowing that some of my students will have seen it, most likely online, and will have been seduced by its tendentious and ignorant history), I’m afraid I have not troubled to read the issue all the way through. The pre-launch publicity warned me of racecraft in the offing. And once I had the issue in hand, the first few bars disinclined me to waste my time on the rest of the operetta. Not that I would have expected anything more of the Times. Ask their writers to take the time to read Edmund Morgan or David Brion Davis or Eugene Genovese or Eric Williams or any of the explosion of rich literature about slavery in the United States and the hemisphere published over the past century? What an idea! And the packaged history they have assembled fits well with neo-liberal politics.

A listing of the people involved in the 1776 commission.

Civil War Historian Allen Guelzo calls the 1619 project a “conspiracy theory” and engages the debate over American exceptionalism. Where Jones and the Times’ project argue for negative exceptionalism, Guelzo makes the case for positive exceptionalism. 

DEFENDERS

Perhaps the most persuasive defense of the project was written by David Waldstreicher, in the Boston Review. He says reporting on the controversy (he singles out Serwer’s essay) fails to acknowledge that the debates over the content of 1619 reflect “deep fault lines in the field of U.S. History,” which he traces back to Charles Beard’s revisionist history of the Constitution a century ago. His article lays out the contours of the debate over the Revolution and identifies the historians on each side, including three of the four panelists on the Times-sponsored forum mentioned above.

Wildersteicher places himself on the pro-Times side against its critics, but calls for building “a bridge over the fault lines in the scholarship,” acknowledging that the Revolution included both ‘proslavery and antislavery dimensions.” The conflict over the Project “explains a lot about what we are going through right now,” he writes.

The blame game that Wilentz and others have sought to play on the 1619 Project’s journalists is as much about political strategy as it is about history, and it can be traced all the way back to the split among abolitionists in 1840. Garrisonian radicals insisted that the Constitution was a “covenant with death.” They also tied the struggle against slavery and for black citizenship to the plight of women. The liberals, by contrast—who went on to found antislavery political parties—saw these positions as divisive and strategically unsound. It might be fine for fashionably progressive circles in eastern cities, but it wouldn’t play well in Ohio. (Not coincidentally, Wilentz has been writing for years about such progressive-liberal splits, while consistently championing traditional Democratic Party politics—opposing first Barack Obama, then Bernie Sanders, and now anyone else who indulges “high-minded politics,” in the present or the past.)
Wildersteicher goes on to say that Frederick Douglass has been criticized for making the same strategic decision, but it was based on “a deep logic, as well as political savvy…. To celebrate what was good and criticize what was lacking in the American Revolution were two sides of the same civic coin. Both were necessary for political reasons, but not least because both were true.”

Defenses of the Project tend to focus mostly on criticizing the critics. In this piece, Nicholas Guyatt accuses his fellow historians of engaging in “a level of vitriol that is neither productive nor scholarly,” and writes them off as a fading generation of gate-keepers resentful of younger scholars. 

In her Politico article, Leslie M. Harris criticizes the Times for ignoring her warnings against exaggerating their claim that preserving slavery was a primary motivation for the American Revolution. But she offers stronger criticism of the project’s political and academic critics. She writes:

The best-known of those letter-writers, however, built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries. By the time Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz were publishing their first, highly acclaimed books on pre-Civil War America, in the early 1970s and mid-1980s, respectively, academic historians had begun, finally, to acknowledge African American history and slavery as a critical theme in American history. But Wood and Wilentz paid little attention to such matters in their first works on early America.
Harris reserves high praise, however, for Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, “which addresses explicitly how the intertwined histories of Native American, African American and English residents of Virginia are foundational to understanding the ideas of freedom we still struggle with today” and perhaps contains the best argument against the 1619 seed analogy.

To the degree I am familiar with how my colleagues at Exeter teach the origins of slavery in American history, Morgan’s book has provided the guiding spirit.

Here, a group of early American historians discuss the enduring significance of Morgan’s book. 

The civics and history education priorities of Biden’s Department of Education make no mention of Morgan’s book.

Laurence Shore places Morgan into an even more complicated discourse on the origins of slavery in his essay on another influential work on the topic in "The Enduring Power of Racism: A Reconsideration of Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black," History and Theory 44 (May 2005), 195-226. 

OTHER

One of the essays in the 1619 series is a review of how slavery is taught in US schools.

A review of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning which refers to it as a “grim view.” 

Coates’s Afro-Pessimism was discussed on my blog here and here.

On Bayard Rustin’s schooling of Martin Luther King Jr. in non-violent strategy: see John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Simon and Schuster, 2003), 230-236.

On the history of the use of the seed metaphor, see Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 76-80. Snail argues that a better metaphor than the seed, is biology's other model of growth: phylogeny. “With phylogeny, there is no blueprint. If lineages appear to head in certain directions, it is only because organisms are doomed to pursue the Sisyphean goal of optimal design in a changing environment” (79). Past historians, he argues, have used the seed metaphor to justify European imperialism. In those narratives, European conquest brought the seed of civilization to “seedless” non-western peoples, whose “cultures were doomed to a timelessness broken only when they were absorbed into the expanding cone of historicity created by Western expansion, colonization, and imperialism” 78.

In her Politico essay, Leslie Harris praises historians who documented the “ways in which black people fought for freedom before, during and after the Revolutionary era—and how, as the 1619 Project rightly points out, they challenged the patriots to live up to their own ideals of freedom for all—ideals that only fully began to be realized at the close of the Civil War, and have still not been fulfilled.” I would add that other historians, including me, have done the same thing with later US wars (pardon the self-promotion).

The debate among historians about 1619 is mostly a debate among leftists. I think Adolph Reed offers some insight into the fundamental divide the debate reflecs in his introductory essay to Class Notes, when he discussed the division that emerged among radical 60s activists in the 70s and 80s, between those who retreated into academia and came to see deconstructing language and oppressive structures as a political act and Labor Party leftists like himself who adhere to an “organizational approach to politics.” The former group emphasized pluralistic, identity group politics, based on “ascriptive identity” categories rather than a class politics based on shared material interests cross boundaries of identity like race, gender and ethnicity. Only a class politics based on the common interests of workers, he argues, is capable of forming a mass politics capable of wielding power and realizing progressive ends. Such a politics of common interests, he argues, “is a politics that, like trade unionism, presumes a concrete, material basis for solidarity—not gestures, guilt-tripping and idealist abstractions.” Those who believe that institutional structures of oppression—like systemic racism—must be dismantled before any meaningful change can occur invite progressive dispair. They came to believe that “capitalist or ruling class power was so great that any specific action attempting to challenge it was destined to fail.” They fail to recognize, he said "that putting the ball in play can suddenly change the alignment of forces in the field and create openings that could not have been predicted. …[They] forget, that is, what Marx recognized more than a century and a half ago that although constrained by structures ... the course of history is dynamic and open-ended, that people actually do make history, even if not ‘just as they please under circumstances chosen by themselves’" (xiii-xiv) Adolph Reed, Jr., Class Politics: Posting as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York: The New Press, 2000). 

While the cultural radicals fight over the schools' history curriculum, we may also be sing an increase in what Reed called the "organizational approach to politics,” during "striketober" of 2021.  Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstien writes that the number of workers on strike is small by comparison to previous "strike waves,"

But what may be even more significant is the cheerleading, the hope, and the expectation for a labor upsurge that has been manifest ever since scores of eager young journalists descended upon Bessemer, Alabama, last winter to cover the union effort there to organize an Amazon distribution center. American liberals know that something is missing from the body politic, and that something is a labor movement with sufficient strength to not only boost pay, but also wield the kind of political power that once pushed Midwestern Republicans to raise the minimum wage, vote for civil rights laws, and even increase social spending.